Platonic Love & Beauty


The peculiar history of Platonism in love and art

The peculiar history of Platonism in love and art
The peculiar history of Platonism in love and art
On this Page:
Platonism & Beauty through History
Beauty in Ancient Art
Venus Reborn
(Click the images for a lightbox slideshow)

Platonism & Beauty through History

Created: 2021
Modified: June 24, 2021
2nd Revision

Concepts of Platonic Love and Platonic Friendship have been deeply intertwined with beauty over a long and peculiar history. On the topic of love, Plato had little to say for himself. Aside from a few odd sentences, all the discussion inPlato's Dialogs is inSocrates' Symposium, which attributes Socrates' thoughts on a "ladder of love" to a sophist namedDiotima of Mantinea. It's almost the only time any precursor to Socrates' thoughts are actually acknowledged inPlato's Dialogs. Socrates had a very low opinion of other 'sophists' (wise people who taught for a living, most famously, Aristotle, who taught Alexander the Great). Diotima's own existence is even in doubt. So if Plato did himself attribute ideas of Platonic Love to Diotima, we can be sure that that Plato did not approve of them. Of course, Christian scribes might have added Diotima's name later, to distance Plato’s discourse on Platonic Love from Jesus' teachings on love. Plato's texts were not destroyed during the Nicene and Augustinian cleansings, so it's reasonable to assume Jesus read Plato as a child; but the dialogs may well have been altered, particularly in any way that conflicted with the doctrines of the Holy Roman Empire, by scribes making new scrolls and books from lost originals.

On that topic, incidentally, Walter Miller'sCanticle for Leibowitz is an excellent read if you like Science Fiction. Although the Miller's cynicism is a little heavy at the end, his imagination of post-apocolyptic events remains widely acclaimed. One should really bear in mind how much work it is to duplicate decaying scrolls, and how little the scribe might actually know of the matter; and also, in defense of the Nicene Council, there was a HUGE number of texts about Jesus' life, and they had to decide which ones were the ones should have many copies widely distributed).

Regardless how much either Socrates or Plato approved of the ideas attributed to Diotima, Plato did write deeply on Socrates'Theory of Ideal Form, which led to concepts of 'classical idealized beauty' evolving in parallel with concepts ofPlatonic Love.

Starting in about 200 AD,Neoplatonists entirely kidnapped the concept of Platonic Love, transforming it into a Christian notion. They held that a couple's love is a manifestation of Jesus' love, promulgated from heaven to create a caring household for raising children. During the enlightenment,Marsilio Ficino reintroduced the 'ladder of love' to Western culture by popularizing Platonic Love as a precursor and basis for marriage. That introduced the notion of necessary celibacy to Platonic relationships, so Platonic Love started to be calledPlatonic Friendship in populist culture.

However, since then, Platonic relationships have attempted to combine incompatible elements from 'classical idealized beauty' with post-Neoplatonic morality, without really understanding either of them. Derived from ancient ideas of idealized physical form, the man is meant to adulate and fiscally support the woman's vainglorious allure. The paradox of combining puritanical male chastity with the sinful vanity of egotistical allure is for some unbeknownst reason rarely acknowledged.

The paradox arose from the simultaneous influence of Plato's 'theory of ideal forms.' Prior to Plato, artists considered 'womanly beauty' not only in sculptures, mosaics, murals, and vase paintings, but also in story telling.

Although Greek men did fancy young boys too, without any awareness it might be a bad idea to engage in intercourse with children, the Greeks essentially considered beauty to be a purely feminine quality. Masculinity was honored for other qualities, such as heroic feats and worthy statesmanship. Even statues of athletes, showing off muscles during athletic sports, emphasized action and achievement. And all athletes were men. If athletes were painted on vases or drinking cups, they were frequently awards for winning athletic competitions. Sculptures of military celebrities emphasized their battles and conquests. Most sculptures of men in static poses were of those in power, in which case they were conservatively draped. While one might consider the beauty of their tasteful formality, the intent was more that they be admired for their patriotic deeds.

With respect to feminine beauty, warnings of its dangers were strongly coupled. In earlier days, Greek sculptures and stories of womanly beauty were more conservative, festooned with moral admonitions. Storytellers, all the way fromHomer (~800 BC) toAeschylus (~400 BC), crooned of seduction's hazardous fates: ofHelen's abduction to Troy; the city of Troy's razing; the victorious king of kings' murder in his bathtub by his vengeful wife; their daughter's curse to foresee the future; heroic ordeals; and trials in theCourts of the Gods. The ideal physical form was reinforced with ideas of ideal behavior–Or rather, the consequences of less than ideal behavior.

Socrates, who was probably a teenager when Aeschylus died, denied notions of 'unavoidable fates' arising from uncontrollable infatuations. He placed intellect above passion, encouraging all to seek 'true ideals.' He said people who did not strive to know such true ideals were enslaved by their own fear to bicker stupidly over shadows on cave walls in which they were chained by their ignorance.

Artists subsequently started to ignore the grim Homeric warnings. Instead the enjoyed focusing purely on physical appearance, and adulation of womanly beauty was unfettered. Marbles of Love Goddesses appeared across the far-flung reaches of the Greek and Roman Empires. Capricious Aphrodite and modest Venus, posing with ever-increasing flirtatious or modest eroticism, nodded to the proudest brothels across hundreds of new city squares. And in tales of Troy, forgotten were the admonitions on the tragic fates of seduction. Eventually, just before the birth of Christ,Virgil rewrote the tale of Troy. Amidst adulations of heroic warriors, the tale ends with lowly subterfuge, the Trojan Horse, on which ignoble note the myth almost invariably still ends, to the present day.

In Homer, Helen wasthe face that sank a thousand ships. In Homer, the Gods of Love and War appear on the battlefield and quarrel with each other. In Aeschylus, demons called 'Furies' wrecked havoc on the life of children for the wayward wrongs of their parents. But by the time Virgil rewrote the story, gone were the tragic fates wreaked upon all those around men who succumbed to women's seductive whiles. Gone were the Gods of love and war from the bloody battlefield. Instead, Virgin made the Trojan House sound like the heroic act that it wasn't, but most people don't even realize the vile trickery of the Trojan Horse was in total contrast with the heroic virtues ascribed to the conquerors of Troy. And in Virgil, the Goddess Venus supports Helen, speaking apologetics for her actions; but she in no way dukes it out with Mars on the battlefield, as Aphrodite did with Mars in Homer. When the consequential violence started, The Roman Goddess of Love was elsewhere, being disinterested and horny as usual.

Beauty in Ancient Art

Formal Stances in Ancient Egypt
Formal Stances in Ancient Egypt

Considering appearance by itself, ancient Greek concepts of beauty evolved from even more ancient ideas of formality and function. Prior to the Hellenic civilization, the ancient Egyptians made statues with arms and legs close to the torso, and attached, so that the limbs would never break off. The statue shown on the right is ofKing Menkaure and his wife, found in his pyramid at Giza, from ~2500 BC. The need to keep arms and legs 'tucked in' so that the statues survived is indubitably the origin of such poses being considered conservative and elegant. That has remained true all the way into the current-day concepts of formal beauty.

Dancing Girls in Ancient Egypt
Dancing Girls in Ancient Egypt

But painting did not place such constraints on posture. Even though the ancient Egyptians reveled in depicting movement in paintings, the greater dynamism possible with the cheaper media still has 'lower class' than the expensive, long lasting, static poses of ancient Egyptian statues.

Even in ancient Egyptian painting, the servants of Pharaohs walked and worked happily, without any erotic overtone. By contrast, consider these topless dancing girls, from the tomb ofa merchant in Thebes (~1350 BC). Highly risqué compared to all other ancient Egyptian art found to date, the merrily gyrating girls are still discreetly painted with torsoes and hair hiding their breasts. It may be no coincidence how the painter partially hides that the dancers are topless in the same way as Capitoline Venus statues later pose so modestly.

Sophist notions of Platonic idealism might have existed prior to Plato attributing all such ideas to Socrates alone, as we know that Socrates could have himself plagiarized a large amount of his rhetoric from other sophists. So the Platonic idealism may have influenced the numerous statues of elegant women adorning the steps and pillars around theParthenon, even before Socrates was born. More likely than not, these statues held baskets of flowers and incense to mask the smell of sweat from those climbing the steep steps up the hill of theAcropolis to the temple of Athena and other sacred buildings atop it.

Korai, circa 530 BCE
Korai, circa 530 BCE

Here are some of the earliest examples of ancient ceremonial statues with arms and legs separate from the body (ca. 530 BC). Known asKorai, one of these has a detachable and changeable arm. Most likely, the statue could hold different items depending on the season and calendars of holy days.

The Aprodite of Rhodes
The Aprodite of Rhodes

With the discovery of better marble, sculptors were able to portray the human form with more varied postures without the risk that the limbs would break off. Those seeking a more conservative depiction restrained themselves to styles similar to the ancient Egyptians. Outflung arms and legs, often conveying dynamism of movement, were more frequent for gods of love and war, as well as the personages following them. With the greater dynamism, the virtuous ideals associated with static, conservative poses diminished.

For example, this capricious and gorgeous Aphrodite (~100 BC) has survived two millennia with hardly a blemish, and is considered the most valued possession of Rhodes. The sculptor showed off his skill and quality of marble in this masterpiece, only 18" tall, by sending tiny little spirals of her hair through open space, with limbs postured to protect and anchor the ringlets at both ends. It's said to be based on a far more modest statue of Venus byDoidalsas from ~300 BC.

At the other end of the spectrum, theCapitoline Venus was the most popular pose for the Goddess of Roman love. Hundreds of statues with virtually no variation from this pose adorned Roman city temples all across its empire, and a surprising number have survived the centuries of moral cleansing of the Dark Ages. Here are just four examples.


A Capitoline Venus
A Capitoline Venus
Another Capitoline Venus
Another Capitoline Venus
Another Capitoline Venus
Another Capitoline Venus
Another Capitoline Venus
Another Capitoline Venus

Venus Reborn

When the Holy Roman Empire took over, moral suppression completely eradicated any consideration of 'womanly beauty' that was not entirely humble and chaste. Paintings of St. Mary had to show her hair covered, wearing tunics from toe to neck and wrist. Then the Capitoline Venus reappeared almost a millennium after the Roman empire fell in this highly controversial painting byBotticelli (Florence, ~1485 AD). According to Roman myth, Venus was born as an adult, made from the cominglings of sea foam, to emerge from the sea fully mature yet without clothes. So in Botticelli's painting, on the right, a maid is rushing to enrobe the newly born Goddess in ornate cloth. Rushing!

On the left, the Goddess of flowers,Flora, is held in deep embrace by the God of the North Wind,Boreas. Venus modestly covers her nude form with her hair and hands, while Boreas blows a giant sea shell under her to the shore. Flores throws flowers all around the newly born Goddess. Rarely perceivable in photographic and lithographic reproductions, Botticelli also embossed the flowers with a gold overlay, so the painting sparkled in the light of the dinner candle lights set around where it hung, at the near end of theMedici House dining room.

Botticelli
Botticelli

It's said Botticelli modeled Venus onClarice Orsini, the wife of Botticelli's patronLorenzo Medici, although there's no corroboration that Clarice looked this way nude. Others say Botticelli must have only imagined Clarice in the nude, because unlikeLeonardo da Vinci andMichelangelo, Botticelli remained a member of the Lorenzo's household all his life, and Lorenzo was a jealous man. Many know the Renaissance had only just started to flower when Botticelli created this remarkable painting. Painting a Roman Goddess at all was still extremely taboo, let alone a nude one. Can one even imagine the dread that Botticelli bravely overcame to paint Clarice in the commission Lorenzo desired? If the Medici house had fallen, Botticelli would have been one of the first on the torture list.

When royalty visited Venice from all over Europe seeking loans, from the Medici bank, how forlornly they must have lusted in secret after Lorenzo's beautiful wife! Meanwhile, Botticelli had to cope with the ecclesiastical authorities who wanted to burn him at the stake for his perverted and sacrilegious rendering of nude polytheism. One can hardly imagine Botticelli's terror if Lorenzo had even suggested his wife pose for the painting in the nude too.

One can far more easily imagine Lorenzo's dinner guests furtively staring at the gorgeous Goddess overlooking them, at moments when they thought Lorenzo would not notice; and he catching them, sternly redirecting their attention to businesses at hand.

Few who have admired the pose which Botticelli chose for the newly born Goddess know that it is derived from the hundreds of Capitoline statues adorning ancient city streets, typically on the other side of square from the many brothels of Rome. But whatever people thought of Venus in Roman times when they walked past her temples, from all we know, Botticelli's Venus could most justifiably be thought the greatest act of Platonic Friendship in all time.